Shaikh Mohammad wiping the tears of Amjoun as she receives the prize. Image Credit: WAM

Dubai: Reading books helps us learn and heal, says the nine-year-old girl, who won this year’s Arab Reading Challenge prize of Dh500,000.

A self-assured Mariam Lehsen Amjoun from Morocco beat out 10.5 million participants from 44 countries across the Arab region and the world to clinch the coveted award.

The youngest of the five finalists was crowned during an award ceremony held at the Dubai Opera House by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

“I expected to win because I was prepared for this challenge very well. Since 2017, I have been reading books, summarising them and trying to understand their content. I knew I was going to be the champion,” said Amjoun after she was awarded the prize.

Meanwhile, The Ekhlas School from Kuwait beat 52,000 schools and bagged the Dh1 million prize for having the best reading initiatives in the region and Aisha Tuwergy from Saudi Arabia took home Dh300,000 for being the “best supervisor” in encouraging students throughout the challenge.

The third edition of the largest-ever Arab literacy initiative expanded to include Arab students living in non-Arab communities across the world and awarded Tasneem Aidi, a Syrian student living in France with Dh100,000 under a new award category announced this year.

Shaikh Mohammad presenting the award to Mariam Lehsen Amjoun, during a ceremony at Dubai Opera House. Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

Shaikh Mohammad also honoured the top finalists from Arab and other non-Arab countries who had participated in the 2018 challenge, which is giving away awards amounting to Dh11 million (more than $3 million).

Amjoun had outperformed thousands of students who participated in the competition in Morocco, and was chosen from among five finalists and 16 semi-finalists who were graded based on ability of expression in Arabic, critical thinking and discussion based on logic and facts.

When a judge asked Amjoun before winning the prize what her message would be for the Arab youth if she had a million followers on social media, she said: “I will inspire them with my experience at the Arab Reading Challenge and will share the challenges I faced and how I overcome them. I want to tell them about the beauty of reading and its power to pass knowledge to people.”

Amjoun continued: “Reading can help fight poverty and ignorance. It is like a hospital to the mind,” she said, as the audience cheered.

All the five finalists had 60 seconds to answer one question by the judging panel. The audience were then asked to take part in an instant voting poll, choosing Amjoun as the first winner of the competition.

The prize money from the award will go towards her university education and to her family for encouraging her to read.

The 2018 edition of the competition has witnessed a record-breaking number of participants, which had gone up by 25 per cent from 7.4 million last year to 10.5 million participants in 2018.

Over 250 million books were collectively read by participants during this competition, which encourages Arab students to read over 50 books in one academic year.

Abdullah Al Nuaimi, Project Manager at Mohammad Bin Rashid Global Initiatives (MBRGI), organisers of the competition, said the Dh11 million in prizes were distributed throughout the competition’s different stages and to top winners.

Visitors during the Arab Reading Challenge award ceremony held at the Dubai Opera House. Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

“The winning school was awarded for carrying out the best reading initiatives for students. They were also chosen for the number of students who participated in the reading activities from that school and for the variety of books they made available in their libraries,” he said.

He added that the Ekhlas School from Kuwaiti was “phenomenal” this year. “The challenge is not only about the prize, it’s about how it inspires students and schools from across the globe to follow the same path.”

Last year, Afaf Raed from Palestine won the title of champion of the 2017 Arab Reading Challenge.

Launched in 2015 by Shaikh Mohammad, the Arab Reading Challenge aims to establish a culture of reading among the new Arab generations across the globe, and highlight the importance of knowledge in shaping their future as well as the future of their communities and countries.

Third edition in numbers:

 10.5 million participants from 44 countries

 Over 250 million books collectively read

 52,000 schools participated

 87,000 supervisors participated

 Dh11 million in prize money

 Participation has increased by 25 per cent compared to last year

 14 Arab countries; 30 non-Arab countries

 1,300 volunteers

 Two million books distributed

Lahsen Amjoun, father of the winner, philosophy teacher:

Morrocan Mariam Lehsen Amjoun, 9, with her father Lehsen Amjounn after she won this year’s Arab Reading Challenge. Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

The prize is a gift from God to my daughter. Mariam is a smart and dedicated student. She works hard on her studies, her books and assignments. She is very passionate about books and also following the news. She has read more than 200 books. She speaks fluently in classical Arabic. She is very young compared to the rest of finalists, but that didn’t make me doubt her capabilities. I’m very proud of her.

There were difficulties and challenges when we were preparing Mariam for the challenge. It was mainly to find the right books for her age first and find books that appeal to her interests. Mariam opened her eyes to an environment where the book was like a table, window or any other important part of the home.

Mariam was very optimistic about winning and she even told her mother and me that that she is 100 per cent certain she will win. Her expectations were right.

Mariam Amjoun, winner:

Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

I expected to win because I prepared for this challenge very well. Since 2017, I have been reading books and summarising it and trying to understand it. I faced many challenges because any competition has a challenge, but I managed to overcome all the challenges.

It was mainly trying to understand some books that were historical. I love reading books that deal with social issues, including historical and scientific books and books on ethics. I want to become an architect like the famous modern architect Zaha Hadid from Iraq. I earlier said that books are a hospital to the minds of people and this is because I believe it heals people from ignorance.

Tasneem Aidi, 12, Syrian living in France, Outstanding Student from Arab Communities Residing in Non-Arab Countries 

Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

My mother is an Arabic teacher and because my school doesn’t teach in Arabic she has been the one teaching me and encouraging me to love the Arabic language and practice it more. I read 25 books for the competition. The books were from different genres such as poetry, literature and history.

I want to distribute part of the prize money for charity. I will give another part of it to my family who worked hard until I reached this stage and for the other part of the prize I will try to establish a book club so it can help equip a whole generation with knowledge. Since education is like a light in the dark.

When I knew that they have a category for students from non-Arab countries this year, I felt really happy because this way we can show the world that no matter which western country we live in, we read Arabic books and love the Arabic language.

Mohammad Abdullah Al Sayegh, Principal of Ekhlas School, Kuwait,

Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

The winning came as a result of collective work from the school. The whole team worked really hard to make this happen. We had a strategy for 18 months and a plan. We raised awareness about the competition in our school and got the largest participation we could possibly imagine from students.

We thank the UAE and Shaikh Mohammad for holding a competition like this. We prepared our students very well and added 10,000 books in the school. The participation from our more than 7,000 students was at 100 per cent. The percentage of students who read more than 50 books was more than 40 per cent. We also prepared a special room for book readings.